Book Review: God is the Gospel, by John Piper
John Piper has once again given us a book that provokes us to earnestly reconsider the center of our personal walks with Christ, the aim of our ministries, and the very pulse of our churches. After all, what’s Christianity really all about? If you love Jesus, you will be affected by this book; the biblical truths trumpeted are deeply challenging in their implications.
I highly recommend John Piper’s God is the Gospel, especially for pastors and other church leaders. The following review addresses:
- The book’s thesis and main argument
- Why this book is particularly useful for church leaders; what it says about:
- the nature of God honoring repentance
- evangelism and apologetics
- how Christians are sanctified
- church leadership
- Two helpful warnings for God is the Gospel readers
- A final critique
Though I suggest you read the book for yourself, this review will give you a thorough dose of its message, and the implications of that message for churches. And you’ll have plenty to examine in your own life before you set it down.
THE THESIS OF GOD IS THE GOSPEL
The thesis of God is the Gospel is that our apprehension of and delight in the glory of God is what makes the good news good. “[The] highest, best, final, decisive good of the gospel, without which no other gifts would be good, is the glory of God in the face of Christ revealed for our everlasting enjoyment” (13). The gospel has not been preached, understood, nor accepted if seeing and loving the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ is not received as its proper goal. Piper turns to 2 Corinthians 4:4-6 as the key text for this biblical truth.
In highlighting this end, Piper does not lose sight of the objective, historical elements of the good news; he still emphasizes that justification by grace alone through faith alone is the “heart” of the gospel. But he wants to press us to ask why it’s good news that we can be justified. Who cares if we are forgiven? To what end do we want to be forgiven? Simply the desire to get out of hell and into heaven will not suffice. There is absolutely nothing spiritual about wanting to escape flames and enjoy bliss. Such motives glorify the god of ease, not the true God of that heaven sincere Christians long for. Piper says it like this:
[The] saving events and all the saving blessings of the gospel are means of getting obstacles [like our sin and God’s wrath] out of the way so that we might know and enjoy God most fully. Propitiation, redemption, forgiveness, imputation, sanctification, liberation, healing, heaven – none of these is good news except for one reason: they bring us to God for our everlasting enjoyment of him. If we believe all these things have happened to us, but do not embrace them for the sake of getting to God, they have not happened to us. Christ did not die to forgive sinners who go on treasuring anything above seeing and savoring God. And people who would be happy in heaven if Christ were not there, will not be there. The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God. It’s a way of overcoming every obstacle to everlasting joy in God. If we don’t want God above all things, we have not been converted by the gospel. (47)
Even a gospel that promotes all God’s good gifts and affirms acts of God in history, but does not carry us to the enjoyment of the glory of God himself, is a short-circuited gospel, and thus no gospel at all. “[The] glory of God in the face of Christ…is essential to the gospel. It is not marginal or dispensable…Thus it is especially important that we think of the gospel in terms of the revelation of God’s glory. God designed it to be the main place where his glory would be revealed from age to age” (84f).
The reason Piper writes such a book is because he sees something disturbing in contemporary evangelicalism. Many peoples’ “Christianity” is not founded upon the glory of Christ, but upon tradition, convention, family habit, education, other people’s opinions, or the desire for eternal ease. In such cases, their faith is not saving faith (82f). Piper asks:
If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there? (15)
If we are pressed to answer honestly, and our answer is yes, then we have not understood the gospel, we have not been converted, and we are not going to heaven. Piper is trying to shake the Church out of such lethargy so that we would answer that question with a resounding no!
WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK ESPECIALLY USEFUL FOR PREACHERS AND OTHER CHURCH LEADERS?
If pastors and church leaders take these biblical ideas to heart their ministries will only be strengthened. There is great wisdom in this book on a variety of ministry related topics: preaching, the nature of God honoring repentance, evangelism and apologetics, sanctification, and church leadership.
The implications here for preaching are huge! Piper challenges us very early in his book, asking, “Can we really say that our people are being prepared for heaven where Christ himself, not his gifts, will be the supreme pleasure?” Then to really press us, he continues, “if our people are unfit for that, will they even go there?” (15)
The task is a daunting one. Preachers can preach many wonderful and true things about the gospel without ever taking their hearers to the real goal of the gospel, God Himself. We can speak of Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and current reign over the universe. We can teach imputed righteousness and forgiveness found in Him by grace alone through faith alone. We can call for repentance. And yet, we may still neglect to shepherd our hearers to the true goal of the Gospel: knowing and enjoying God through Christ. It’s easy to criticize this or that church for not preaching the gospel, but perhaps our own churches are neglecting some crucial gospel components as well. The objective components of the gospel are means to the glorious end of knowing and enjoying the glory of God in Christ. Thus, the glory of God must be seen in these objective facts and wonderful blessings of the gospel, or the objective facts and wonderful blessings are not being understood. Simply put, they are vehicles to point us to God.
So what does this practically mean for our preaching style? Though Piper doesn’t directly say this in this book, it is clear that these things call us to sober and serious proclamation. The glory of God put Isaiah on his face (Isaiah 6). And the glory of God in the gospel of Christ did the same to the apostle John (Revelation 1). The glory of God seems a bit incompatible with the excessive jokes, the cute personal stories, and the motivational vignettes we hear from the pulpit these days. We are being called here to take our religion with more earnestness. We are not playing games when we speak of the glory of God revealed in the gospel of His Son.
Piper also helps us better understand the nature of God honoring repentance. What are we looking for when we call people to repent? Are we seeking a moral reformation? We need to be careful lest we make outwardly upright “disciples” with hearts far from God (cf. Matthew 15:8; 23:27f). Piper offers us some wise pastoral advice here. He insists that real repentance that honors God is not founded upon fearing hell, regretting foolish behavior, or remorse over having wasted our lives, but upon the realization that because of our sins we have missed God and not cherished or prized His beauty (109). We need to preach and teach in such a way that moves people to feel that their sins are far worse than they think: their sins have separated them from God. To do this we must “bring them first to see the glory of God as their treasure and their delight…[for the] sorrow of true contrition is sorrow for not having God as our all-satisfying treasure” (107).
Evangelism and Apologetics
Of course the ramifications for evangelism are large as well. If we teach all the historical objective realities of the gospel, and explain many of its wonderful facets, but do not do so in a way that holds out the glory of God in Christ as more desirable than anything in the universe, how effective will our evangelism be (37)? If true converts are those who love Jesus more than their own life (cf. Luke 14:26) we won’t be very effective at all if we neglect the glory of Christ and the joy of knowing Him. “Seeing the glory of God in Christ in the gospel is essential to conversion” (84). Piper calls conversion “The Merciful Destruction of Inferior Joy,” (151) where sinners stop loving the fleeting pleasures of this world and start treasuring God in Christ above all else, for their good and for their everlasting joy.
Drawing from 2 Corinthians 4:4-6, Piper also points out that everyone’s spiritual condition before conversion is blindness to the glory of Christ; they cannot see it; Satan has blinded their eyes (61). The only way that this blinding effect of Satan is overturned is by God’s sovereign and merciful work; He must open our eyes to see this glory as all satisfying over against the allurements of sin and worldly idols that Satan uses to blind. Piper puts it like this:
God aims that his glory be seen and savored in the gospel so clearly that the power of Satan is broken, and it becomes plain to all that the sweetness of the crucified Christ is more powerful than the enticements of Satan. It is not a small thing to fail to display God as the greatest gift of the gospel. It plays into the hands of the devil and contradicts God’s design to break Satan’s power by the revelation of the superior beauty of Christ in the gospel. (114)
If that does not underline the imperative to trumpet the glory of God in Christ, then I don’t know what does!
One last reflection regarding evangelism. Piper takes Calvin’s doctrine of the self-authentication of the Scriptures and applies it to the gospel (chapter 5). Conversion is far more than adhering to and repeating a list of historical facts. It’s seeing and savoring the glory of God in Christ. And it’s that glory that authenticates the gospel as true and desirable. An understanding of this will go far in weaning us off relying on an evidential apologetic and methodological tactics in our evangelism. The gospel finally authenticates itself when its glory is seen.
Piper also addresses how our people will be sanctified through our preaching. Here Piper draws from 2 Corinthians 3:18. When we uphold the glory of Christ in the gospel through our preaching, and people behold it there, they are transformed more into His likeness. “The work of the Holy Spirit in changing us is not to work directly on our bad habits but to make us admire Jesus Christ so much that sinful habits feel foreign and distasteful…Therefore, if we neglect the glory of God in Christ as the greatest gift of the gospel, we cripple the sanctifying work of the church” (91f). Piper gives the following example:
When, for example, we try to help a teenage boy triumph over pornography [or anyone over any sin], we will work and pray to help him see and savor the glory of Christ. We will not merely use accountability structures and filters and human reasoning. We will seek to saturate his mind and heart with the enthralling vision of the all-satisfying Christ. (168)
Piper’s further comments about sanctification on pages 127-130 are encouraging and uplifting as well. He talks about how our “sufferings accomplish the greatest good of the gospel, a more pure and authentic and deeply satisfying seeing and savoring of God in Christ” (127). Piper reminds us “the gospel is strange. Its goal is not [our] immediate ease. Its goal is [our] being so in love with Christ and so passionate about his glory that when [our] suffering can highlight his worth [and bring us to know Him more] [we] will bear it ‘gladly’” (128, commenting on Romans 8:28, 32; Philippians 4:13; and 2 Corinthians 1:8f). What kind of salt and light would we be if we handled our sufferings with that attitude (cf. I Peter 3:14f)?
Finally, there are some implications for church leaders, whether preaching regularly or not. We need to think about what kind of climate we are creating in our churches. Are we training missionaries and evangelists who savor the glory of God and spread the gospel to that end (89)? Are our people doing a lot of “religious things” all the while not being directed to the glory of God in and through those religious things (149)? Do visitors in our churches – especially unbelievers – understand that we are a people zealous for the glory of God in all things? Or do they perceive that we hope in the same worldly things they hope in? And does our love for our people take the shape of making their comforts abound and engaging them in pleasant conversation, or does it involve showing them the glory of God (even if that involves the difficult work of rebuking them for their sin)?
TWO HELPFUL WARNINGS FOR GOD IS THE GOSPEL READERS:
Two warnings need to be made. One, we need to be clear on what Piper is not saying. And two, we need to be careful about how we say what he is saying.
First, I could see how someone could read this book and think that Piper is teaching some kind of perfectionism with regard to love for God. He is not teaching that. He recognizes that the fight against lesser pleasures in this world is not easy and that “Life is not all joy above sorrow; life is a battle for joy in the midst of sorrow” (112). Also, though he has some very strong statements about what true conversion is (many of them quoted above), he is not saying that the individual who does not fully understand and know how to articulate all the truth wrapped up in 2 Corinthians 4:4-6 is not a true disciple of Christ. He just knows the context we live in, with nominal Christianity abounding, and he finds provocative ways of asking us, “Do you love Jesus more than anything or anyone else?” That, in its simplest form, is the question we all need to answer in the affirmative if we would truly be saved.
And this leads to the second warning. Be careful not to beat the sheep over the head with this stuff. Christ wants His people to be confident in Him, not to drag their chins because they are just now understanding these things whereas they hadn’t before. Yes, there is a place for godly contrition (see the section above on what God honoring repentance is), but there is also a place for great joy in learning these truths and beginning to shape our lives around them in a more conscious and intentional way. So preach these things as joyful doctrines, not as rods for your people’s backs. As Gregory the Great said, “The job of the preacher is to comfort the disturbed, and to disturb the comfortable.” A fine line to walk.
Though I highly recommend this book, I nevertheless offer two critiques.
First, this is not the best Piper book to begin with if you’re not already familiar with Piper’s theology. He seems to assume a lot of what he’s gone to great lengths to explain in other books. Therefore, if you haven’t read these other books, you may not entirely understand when he summarizes something from them. (Sometimes Piper tells us he’s summarizing something from another book of his, and sometimes he doesn’t). That being said, if you are not already familiar with John Piper, you need to be. Let me recommend starting with either Desiring God (Multnomah, 1986), The Pleasures of God (Multnomah, 2000), or When I Don’t Desire God (Crossway, 2004).
Secondly, there is very little in this book on the glory of God seen in His Church universal, or in local churches, as His people live these things out in community. He hints at it in a few places. For example, he says on page 17, “The world needs nothing more than to see the worth of Christ in the work and words of his God-besotted people,” and, on page 162, “In this way the gospel of God reaches its final goal in a universal and corporate reality, not just an individual one.” But there is nothing substantial on this issue. The ideas behind both of these quotes are ripe for entire chapters. To keep with the theme of the book, could he have included something on I John 3:1, 10f; 4:10-12? We love because God has given us this gift of Himself as an act of love. Could more also have been said on John 11 (cf. 152-154) where Jesus teaches us that true love is to show the glory of God to others? After all, we show God’s glory, we put His character on display, as we reflect His holiness, unity, and self sacrificial love in our relationships with one another, particularly in the local church. The local church is where the glory of God in the gospel is lived out and so made visible.
All in all, this is a great book, and I highly recommend it. Especially if you’re a pastor or church leader, the ideas in this book need to be given serious consideration. And since so much of this book is a meditation on 2 Corinthians 4:4-6, I would say that no one should preach on 2 Corinthians without first reading this book.
As always, I’m greatly challenged and convicted by Piper’s words, and at the same time, encouraged and comforted. The teaching in God is the Gospel, especially the biblical exposition, is a form itself of seeing the glory of God in Christ. It is beholding Christ, and thus a means of being conformed to His likeness. By God’s grace, as I have gazed upon Christ through this book, I trust this ongoing transformation has been accelerated in my own life. I pray the same for you.